Sensory Experiences and Epigenetic Changes

Epigenetics

We are often asked about the world of epigenetics. We are super interested in the evolving understanding of epigenetics as it is demonstrating how the sensory worlds we experience, including those of smell, touch, sounds, movements etc actually change how our genetic stories unfold. These impact the building of our brains and bodies, including our ability to be more or less resilient to stressors that come our way. And not only across our lifetime but the generations that follow us too. So, let’s examine further….

USEFUL TERMS

DNA is a molecule found in the nuclei of nearly all our cells. It contains the codes for all our traits, such as eye colour, hair colour, and height. We inherit half our DNA from our mothers and half from our fathers. It is responsible for carrying our traits.

TRAITS are characteristics that we inherit and are carried by our DNA. They include physical attributes like eye colour and can be influenced by genes and environmental factors

GENES are portions/ sections of our DNA that code for specific proteins. Proteins determine how traits are going to be expressed and build various body structures and systems. Different cells and structures may only use certain parts of our genes. Eye color is determined by several different genes being expressed. Genes can turn on and off protein expressions in response to environmental cues.

CHROMOSOMES house compact coils of DNA strands. DNA strands are approximately 6 ft/2 m long. Coiling them into chromosome structures enables them to sit within the cell nuclei. Humans have 46 chromosomes in each cell of their bodies. Egg and sperm cells each have 23 chromosomes. We have different chromosomes as each carries a unique combination of genes, which contribute to the genetic diversity and variation among us.

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EPIGENETICS refers to the study of heritable changes in gene expression that occur without altering the DNA sequence itself. It explores how our environment and experiences can shape our genetic makeup and influence communication across generations. Epigenetic changes involve modifications to the structure or chemical marks on DNA that can turn genes on or off, thus affecting gene activity and expression.

EPIGENETIC CAPABILITY enables us to provide flexibility and adaptability in responding to our environment. While our DNA sequence remains relatively stable throughout our lives, epigenetic changes allow our genes to be dynamically regulated and to respond to different environmental cues. These changes can occur in response to various factors such as diet, stress, toxins and sensory experiences. The ability to modify gene expression through epigenetic mechanisms enables us to fine-tune our genetic responses and optimize our physiological and behavioural outcomes in different contexts.

EPIGENETIC MODIFICATIONS can play a crucial role in development, disease susceptibility, and even intergenerational inheritance. They offer a mechanism through which environmental factors can leave lasting imprints on our genes, influencing our health, behaviour, and overall well-being.Understanding epigenetics helps us better understand the complex interplay between our genes and our environments.

The Influence of Sensory Experiences on Genes

Sensory experiences play a significant role in the interaction between sensory information and gene DNA, ultimately influencing our genetic makeup. Research has shown that sensory information can trigger chemical modifications in our DNA, known as epigenetic marks. These marks can activate or silence specific genes, leading to changes in gene activity.For example, exposure to certain smells or sounds can activate genes related to memory formation or stress response. Similarly, nurturing environments and positive social interactions can promote the expression of genes associated with emotional well-being and resilience.By understanding the intricate interplay between sensory information and gene DNA, we realize the importance of creating enriching environments that support positive sensory experiences and nurture our genetic potential. This understanding provides valuable insights into how our genes respond to the world around us.

Environmental Influences on Gene Expression

Epigenetic factors, known as epigenetic marks, influence gene activity and can be influenced by environmental factors. For example, one epigenetic mark is methylation, which can stop proteins from being transcribed.

There are 3 types of epigenetic influences:

  1. Direct: Epigenetic changes that occur during the lifespan of an individual due to direct experiences with the environment.
  2. Indirect: Epigenetic changes that occur within the womb due to events during gestation.
  3. Indirect: Epigenetic changes that affected our predecessors (parents, grandparents), where events that happened before conception are transmitted across generations.

Epigenetic changes through the above have been associated with various mental health conditions, including anxiety and depression. Adverse early experiences, such as low maternal care or abuse, can affect the expression of genes related to anxiety and depression.

The impact of sensory experiences on our gene DNA can be profound. Exposure to certain smells or sounds has been found to activate genes related to memory formation or stress response. Similarly, nurturing environments and positive social interactions can promote the expression of genes associated with emotional well- being and resilience.

It is becoming ever clearer that our sensory experiences can ultimately shape our genetic makeup by influencing gene activity and expression, affecting health, behaviour, and overall well-being. In the same way that we are affected by the experiences of former generations, so too do we impact the genetic expression of future generations. This highlights the importance of nurturing sensory environments, especially during time within the womb and early live.

You may also be interested in our blogs about the Polyvagal Theory and different long term responses to pain and our series on Understanding Your Neurobiology.

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